Dr. Mark Fettes on Building Sustainable Educational Ecologies

December 17, 2019

From the foothills of northern Italy to Gabriola Island, the work of Dr. Mark Fettes continues to connect the world. Dr. Fettes is fluent in Esperanto – the international language that led him to later work in First Nations language maintenance and revitalization, and from there to education. This unique position sees him continuing to witness and participate in efforts at intercultural reconciliation on many continents. Most recently, those efforts have involved working, on the one hand, to refine the language policies of the multilingual European Union, attempting to reconcile potentially conflicted interests as regards mobility and inclusion. Closer to home, those efforts involve people coming together through education by regrounding it in the land that gives life to us all.

Since his initial work on language policy in the 1990s, Dr. Fettes has maintained a foothold in the international linguistics community. Over the last five years, through a visiting scholar appointment with the University of Milan-Bicocca, he worked with the Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe (MIME) project, a collaboration organized and funded by the European Commission. Mobility within the Union is part of its raison d'etre, but that freedom of movement may often conflict with the EU’s goals of inclusion and cultural cohesion. To address this, scholars from across the EU worked together to develop policy positions across a range of questions issuing from these challenges. As their summary webpage describes it, “[t]he core assumption of the MIME project is that ‘mobility’ and ‘inclusion’ are not incompatible, but that they do not necessarily converge, and that societies (and even individual citizens) are often confronted with a trade-off between them.”

MIME recently concluded their final conference in Berlin and are now promoting the MIME Vademecum, a set of direct and simple answers to tense and complicated policy questions published in 2018. Oddly enough, the answers were published in English alone, which may be an indication of the pragmatic facts of EU policy today. Dr. Fettes acknowledges the contradiction: “Language is seen as a fundamental issue of national identity in Europe, which means that there’s often a divide between EU declarations and what the member governments and societies are actually prepared to do. In the Education Work Package, we found inspiring examples of multilingual educational policies and practices all over the EU, but essentially no examples of sustained systemic commitment to linguistic inclusion.”

As MIME has been winding down, Dr. Fettes has been working to build a very different project on the Pacific side of the globe. In 2016, Gabriola Elementary, a public elementary school in the Gulf Islands, invited Dr. Fettes and his colleague Dr. Sean Blenkinsop to join them in developing a place-based curriculum for the island’s children. The two had worked together on the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project from 2008 to 2015, helping the school district to conceptualize and establish an experimental outdoor, place-based “school” that brought together an extended community of students, families, and community organizations. The Gabriola school was keen to do something similar, working with the community’s dream to localize education and ground teaching and curriculum in a shared sense of place. Dr. Fettes embarked on a series of gatherings with teachers and community members to sound out the possibilities for a long-term collaboration.

In 2016, working with the school and a dozen community organizations, the team applied for a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to help fund the project, but were unsuccessful. In the meanwhile, however, members of the school and associated community have continued developing place-based initiatives, including cultivating stronger ties with the local Indigenous title holder, Snunéymuxw First Nation. Over the same period, Dr. Fettes has facilitated a reimagining of the project as “intergenerational land-based learning for reconciliation” – an approach inspired in part by the testimonies recorded by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Place” may come across as a neutral way to imagine where we are, but, Dr. Fettes explains, to speak of land “reminds us that the world is alive and intelligent, an understanding that is central to Indigenous ontologies and worldviews”. An interesting aspect of the research, he says, is “simply to observe how the conversation changes, how the dynamics between people change, when reconciliation is conceived of as a land-based process.”

Dr. Fettes points out that this approach is in keeping with the newly released consensus from School District 68 (Nanaimo-Ladysmith), which Gabriola is part of. The district’s new policy, called the Syeyutsus Reconciliation Framework, passed unanimously at a school board special meeting this October. It calls for educators in the district to honour “the teachings of the land” and to practice “syeyutsus” – “walking in two worlds.” According to Dr. Fettes, the implications are not limited to the school itself. “Reconciliation involves all of us, and so our new proposal to SSHRC places emphasis on the learning of the community as a whole.” A Develop Grant from the Vancouver Foundation has provided the project with some seed money for a year’s activities while it awaits the results of the latest SSHRC competition.

Despite the very different geographies, cultures and scales involved, Dr. Fettes’ research is aimed at building sustainable educational ecologies – systems in which diversity can flourish. It is challenging work: the Maple Ridge school is still going today, but neither he nor anyone else can tell whether the MIME project will bear fruit in the form of changes to language policy in the EU. As for Gabriola, it may be quiet in the Gulf as the islands grow still and frozen this December, but spring is coming. Who knows what flowers it will raise?